Rugby returns as sport enters new era

21 Aug 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

The Guinness PRO14 will return after the coronavirus lockdown with derby games to finish the season before moving straight to the play-offs. Sport Industry Group spoke to Martin Anayi, CEO, PRO14 to discuss the league's return, recent investment by CVC Capital Partners and the future of a sport entering a new era.

The Guinness PRO14 has returned to action and, like most leagues in Europe, it will be played out behind closed doors.

Over the next few weeks, it will also be played out initially between local rivals.

Like every other league that was postponed over lockdown, the PRO14 has had to think hard about how to return safely. Some leagues have been curtailed, others - like the NBA and UEFA’s various football club competitions - have taken the tournament into a bubble.

For the PRO14, matches after the restart will be between local rivals, with derby games between teams of the same nation allowing clubs to avoid international travel and ensure fixtures can take place safely in a bubble until the playoffs begin later. 

A solution which also throws up the prospect of the league’s most attractive games happening at a time when fans have been starved of their rugby fix. 

That’s something that could also be on the cards for the start of next season - after leagues of all kinds complete their restarts, attention turns to delivering a new season filled with just as many unknowns about the future as there were at the height of lockdown itself.

“We haven’t announced the fixture list or scheduling just yet,” said Martin Anayi, CEO, Guinness PRO14, “but we’re looking at all of these things: do we begin the season with derby games to mitigate travel restrictions that might ease later on in the season?”

“We can listen and consult, but ultimately we will be directed by the governments in each country we play in. It’s definitely harder as a cross-border competition, but the same is true for the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, too.”

Next season will also be the first full season since the investment of CVC Capital Partners, announced in late May.

“It’s been really pleasing that we’ve been able to tap into CVC’s network and expertise of close to 100 companies that they invest in to help us with our own thinking on the COVID-19 response. That’s been hugely positive - and frankly unexpected - for us; the level of support that we’ve received,” said Anayi.

“From a partnership point of view, to be able to be secure and plan at a time like this has been incredibly important for us as a business, but for our stakeholders too, to show that we’re thinking long-term.

“We’re asking now what we can do better in the long-term. That might be around data, where CVC has invested in companies at the top of their game, or what we might do collectively with Premiership Rugby, for example, around marketing or communications strategy.

“The way we see it is we have a great partnership. Rugby has professionalised greatly on the pitch, and maybe off it that’s been a bit slower off the ground. But we’re really excited about what we can do now from a marketing, promotional and communications point of view and there’s a lot of room for growth there.”

The Gallagher Premiership and the PRO14 have received investment from CVC, while at a club level, a recent takeover of Welsh side Ospreys completed by Chinese group Y11 Sports and Marketing, has seen the sport gain even greater investment to help it grow.

But as rugby continues its journey to greater professionalism, there are always questions surrounding how the investment in elite leagues will impact grassroots and the lower leagues.

“Grassroots is the life blood of the sport, ultimately,” said Anayi. “If you look at any consumer research around the game, there’s a very high number of ardent fans who have played the game at some point in their lives.

“The interconnection and correlation between the grassroots and the professional game is very high and so you want both to be doing well at the same time. If you try to put all your investment into the professional game, the professional game will die in a few years because the majority of the fanbase that comes from that grassroots game will not be there. It’s critical that the grassroots is helped to prosper. 

“The way the deal is structured from CVC the entity is that the investment goes to the unions, who are equally as responsible for the amateur and grassroots games as they are for the professional game.”

Within the professional game, attempts to make the sport more competitive have led to calls for salary caps. Clubs in the Gallagher Premiership have agreed to cut their salary caps in the 2021/22 season before returning to its current level ahead of the 2024/25 season. 

The idea of a cap is something Anayi doesn’t dismiss out of hand, but he does point out the difficulties of implementing one in a competition like the PRO14, where some clubs are privately owned and others, such as provinces in Ireland, have players on central contracts with their unions.

“There are benefits to the salary cap system,” said Anayi, “but if it’s not universally applied across the sport and across territories, firstly it’s difficult to enforce and secondly it doesn’t actually achieve its aim.

“You certainly don’t want a salary cap forcing all the best talent away. You want a salary cap to make sure that clubs are still there in 50 years time and haven’t had to go into administration or fold. 

“A salary cap would need to be across European club rugby and would need to be universally applied. It would also need to be linked to what money’s coming in, it shouldn’t just be an arbitrary number.”

The return of rugby comes at a time when the sport takes another step forward in its professionalisation, and the questions of the direction it will take next will return. But for now, leagues are just happy to be back.

“We just can’t wait to start playing again,” said Anayi. “And when we do, all that positivity will come back.”